Speaking to a Diverse Audience

April 7, 2017.

Guidelines for Speaking to a Diverse Audience
From World Class Speaking in Action, Chapter 40 by Danish Qasim

Most, if not all, large companies, as well as many middle-sized companies, have staff in several different countries, with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.  When people come together for regional and global meetings, these differences need to be taken into account by presenters in order to get their message across and avoid misunderstandings.

The author provides eight guidelines for speaking to a diverse audience:

Choose Your Words Thoughtfully:
Speak intelligently and intelligibly, “Never use a long word where a short one will do” said George Orwell.  Research shows that readers lose attention when they encounter an unfamiliar word—but at least they can refer to a dictionary.

Since speech is moving, however, if your listeners hear an unfamiliar word they might lose the thread of your talk whilst thinking about the word—then they’re off course and you might have lost them.

When talking to non-native speakers, for example if you’re speaking in English to an audience for whom English is their second (or third) language, avoid idioms and colloquialisms and, if possible, try to find out beforehand the level of the audience’s English—the same applies to any language.

Be Universal in Examples:
When you make allusions (indirect or passing references) ensure they are mainstream—use familiar points of reference.  Avoid stereotypes and try to be as universal as possible, but also with examples tailored to your particular audience, as appropriate.

At the same time, as a speaker you should be transparent about the cultural assumptions you are making—make it clear to the audience where you are from.

Learn to Empathise:
Empathy with you audience is vital, so make sure to find out what you can about your audience beforehand—do research, for example by interviewing potential members.  Without understanding the audience well, a speech could end up being too distant from those you are speaking to, or too theoretical, or even irrelevant.

When you show appreciation, you will be appreciated:
As Craig Valentine says, “You never want to break from tradition”.  So whomever you are talking too, why not open your speech with a greeting in the language of your audience—this will generate a positive response right from the start.  So too will using other words and expressions in the local language during your speech.

Learn the Norms:
If you are giving a speech in another country, you would not be expected to know all the local customs, and audiences will usually be accommodating in this respect.  Nevertheless, you should do research beforehand, for example, to find out if there are certain hand gestures that are insulting or obscene in the local culture—if you use them it will create a bad atmosphere and distract the audience from what you are saying, even if they understand that your mistake was unintentional.

Don’t be Ethnocentric:
Respect your audience, especially if you are speaking in a religious setting, and welcome new experiences.

Master the Art of Code Switching:
Code switching means changing your speaking style to fit your audience.  Know when to switch for rhetorical effect. For example, if you are using dialogue, that might be a time to use colloquial terms—to give authenticity, since everyone knows dialogue isn’t spoken in standard language and it also gives a conversational feel to your speech, bringing in the audience.  Successful code switching is getting the balance right between being too formal and too informal.

Know Your Audience’s Value System:
In order to effectively convey the message of your talk you need to understand your audience’s value system and what they think is important.  For example, using first names is acceptable in some countries, but not in others where it could be taken as a mark of disrespect.

Some audiences respond very actively and interact with the speaker, almost like they are having a conversation—other audiences don’t.  Humans are essentially the same the world over and good speakers learn to use both universal and specific elements to get their message across effectively.

World Class Speaking in Action, Craig Valentine & Mitch Meyerson, Morgan James Publishing, 2014.

This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.

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